Monsieur Vincent, Maurice Cloche’s beautifully crafted, award-winning biopic starring Pierre Fresnay as St. Vincent de Paul, is as austere and compelling as its single-minded, iron-willed protagonist. Luminously filmed in black and white by Cloche (The Small Miracle) and cinematographer Claude Renoir (The River, directed by his uncle Jean Renoir) from a sensitive script by Jean Anouilh (Becket), Monsieur Vincent is a towering achievement among the world’s great spiritual cinema.
From the unnerving opening act, in which the saint wanders the deserted streets of his new village parish of Chatillon-les-Dombes while stones rain all around him, cast out of windows by villagers terrified of plague, the film draws a stark dramatic contrast between the appalling physical and moral poverty of St. Vincent’s times and the realism and moral authority with which Vincent confronts them.
Vincent de Paul led a remarkable life. Born into poverty, sold into slavery in Africa after being kidnapped at sea by Turkish pirates, he eventually rose to become a trusted advisor to queens, princes, and nobility.
Even more remarkable was the way this unassuming priest used his influence and abilities to bring about major change in social consciousness throughout France, change that made its effects felt all over Europe and eventually the whole world. Five centuries earlier St. Francis of Assisi, born to wealthy parents, had sparked a spiritual revolution by gathering together men and women and teaching them to live as beggars. Vincent sparked another revolution by gathering together men and women and teaching them to feed and shelter beggars.
Of course charity for the neediest had always been practiced in Christian society on an individual basis (Francis himself taught his followers to reduce themselves to poverty by means of giving their possessions to the poor). Vincent’s innovation was to organize charity, to found ongoing institutions and orders devoted to caring for the poor and sick. The work he started is continued today by not only by the orders he founded, such as the Sisters of Charity, but also in a way by every soup kitchen and homeless shelter.
Monsieur Vincent celebrates the saint’s single-minded devotion to the poor without romanticizing the objects of his devotion and recipients of his charity. Vincent himself, though he urges his followers to regard the poor as their masters, admits frankly that they are “masters who are terribly insensitive and demanding… dirty and ugly… unjust and foul-mouthed.” Yet he is adamant that, the harder they are to serve, “the more you will have to love them.”
Vincent loves and serves the poor, but he doesn’t make excuses for them. “I know [Providence] looks after the birds of the field, but at least they do something!” he chides one shiftless young man in line for bread; adding, with a shake of the fellow’s arm, “That’s strong enough to wield a spade!” The next suppliant is a young mother of four who entreats, “They’re hungry… I don’t expect anything for myself…” Vincent gives her permission to bring her children every day — but the next shot reveals the woman at the table snatching and scarfing a hunk of bread, with no sign of concern for her children.
Nor does Vincent (or Cloche) turn a blind eye to the failings and follies of the rich. At every turn Vincent’s relentless efforts to channel the resources of the wealthy to help the poor are frustrated by apathy, frivolity, fastidiousness, and pride. Through the good graces of one sympathetic woman of means, he forms the “Ladies of Charity,” a Paris-based group dedicated to helping the poor. But the ladies turn out to be more taken with the exclusive nature of their own society than with any possible good they might do; and, in the end, most of them end up sending their maids and servants to do the work. Vincent responds by constituting the “Daughters of Charity” from these working-class women; yet there are some outcasts whom even these plain honest women are loath to touch. Monsieur Vincent spares no one; there is no class, no subset of society that is beyond criticism — or beyond hope and charity.
Some great film biopics, like A Man for All Seasons, are self-contained dramas. Monsieur Vincent seems torn from a larger fabric; it suggests more of the saint’s life than it can actually recount. An incident aboard a ship after Vincent has been named chaplain of the galleys suggests his concern for the galley slaves who row the ships, but we never see Vincent visiting these slaves (who are actually convicts sentenced to galley service) in prison, or establishing the hospital he built to care for them after their grueling labor left them shattered. A wrenching debate about the fate of abandoned foundlings left in church doorways leaves us unclear about the outcome; we are assured that Vincent accomplished all he set out to do, but he did so much Cloche can’t possibly show it all.
Not being an expert on the life of Vincent de Paul, I find myself, watching the film, wishing at times I knew more about the specific events glimpsed in the film (the Catholic Encyclopedia entry helped, as have a few other sources). Yet no special background knowledge is necessary to perceive the spirit of the man’s life, and the spirit of the man himself. Monsieur Vincent is a beautiful, inspiring film, one that rewards repeated viewing.
At last! Long available only in out-of-print English-dubbed VHS, Monsieur Vincent is finally available on DVD, in a bare-bones edition from Lionsgate/StudioCanal with the original French soundtrack with English and Spanish subtitles. Though there are no extras or bonus features, the affordable price tag (under $13 at Amazon.com) puts this beautiful film, one of the most neglected and hard-to-find of the 45 films honored on the 1995 Vatican film list, within easy reach.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.